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December 8, 2005

what's wrong with torture?

For anyone who wonders why torture is wrong, an excellent argument can be found in David Luban's "Liberalism, Torture, and the Ticking Bomb," Virginia Law Review, vol. 91 (Oct. 2005), pp. 1425ff. Here I'll paraphrase a central part of the argument.

While there are no major ancient or medieval critiques of cruelty, the classical liberals (who were the intellectual ancestors of today's conservatives and progressives alike) focused on cruelty as a special evil because it represented what they feared most: state tyranny. Killing someone can cause more harm than torturing him. Throwing someone in jail for the rest of his life can be worse than inflicting a medium amount of pain. Nevertheless, the torturer is a perfect representative of a tyrannical state--more so than the executioner or the jailor. Luban p. 1430:

the self-conscious aim of torture is to turn its victim into someone who is isolated, overwhelmed, terrorized, and humiliated. Torture aims to strip away from its victim all the qualities of human dignity that liberalism prizes. The torturer inflicts pain one-on-one, deliberately, up close and personal, in order to break the spirit of the victim--in other words, to tyrannize and dominate the victim. The relationship between them becomes a perverse parody of friendship and intimacy: intimacy transformed into its inverse image, where the torturer focuses on the victim's body with the intensity of a lover, except that every bit of that focus is bent to causing pain and tyrannizing the victim's spirit.

Some people argue that torture is nevertheless necessary in a society threatened by people who are willing to detonate nuclear bombs in crowded cities. What about the "ticking time bomb"--the terrorist who must be forced to divulge his secrets before there's a big explosion? Shouldn't he be tortured to save innocent lives, much as Dirty Harry forced Scorpio to reveal where he'd hidden the kidnapped child in the eponymous 1971 movie?

There are two major responses. First, real life doesn't present ticking-time bomb situations, and even if it did, torture wouldn't work to divulge the necessary information, because terrorists can lie. In real-life situations, torturers try to extract whatever information they can from suspected enemies, hoping to gather data that strengthens their overall understanding of enemy networks. No single suspect holds secrets that can by themselves save lives. It follows that a strategy of torture will require lots of it.

In any case, you cannot torture just once in a while. Torture that has any chance of working must be professionalized. The state needs experienced (desensetized) torturers, torture manuals, torture training, torture equipment, and lawyers' memos rationalizing torture. The effect of all this "infrastructure" is not only to generate a new part of the government that will fight for its own survival. Worse, it tends to "normalize" torture. Normalization is a powerful and dangerous pyschological phenomenon. As Luban writes (pp. 1451-2):

we judge right and wrong against the baseline of whatever we have come to consider "normal" behavior, and if the norm shifts in the direction of violence, we will come to tolerate and accept violence as a normal response. The psychological mechanisms for this re-normalization have been studied for more than half a century, and by now they are reasonably well understood. Rather than detour into psychological theory, however, I will illustrate the point with the most salient example .... This is the famous Stanford Prison Experiment. Male volunteers were divided randomly into two groups who would simulate the guards and inmates in a mock prison. Within a matter of days, the inmates began acting like actual prison inmates--depressed, enraged, and anxious. And the guards began to abuse the inmates to such an alarming degree that the researchers had to halt the two-week experiment after just seven days. In the words of the experimenters:
The use of power was self-aggrandising and self-perpetuating. The guard power, derived initially from an arbitrary label, was intensified whenever there was any perceived threat by the prisoners and this new level subsequently became the baseline from which further hostility and harassment would begin... . The absolute level of aggression as well as the more subtle and "creative" forms of aggression manifested, increased in a spiralling function.
It took only five days before a guard, who prior to the experiment described himself as a pacifist, was forcing greasy sausages down the throat of a prisoner who refused to eat; and in less than a week, the guards were placing bags over prisoners' heads, making them strip, and sexually humiliating them in ways reminiscent of Abu Ghraib.

I think we should be very careful about any behavior that is not unjust in itself but that can escalate quickly and without natural limits. That is why imprisonment is better than corporal punishment. Ten years in jail is a worse punishment than a dozen lashes. However, an excessive prison term can be reconsidered before it is served, and there is a natural limit to imprisonment (a life sentence). There is no limit to the number of lashes inflicted inside of an hour. That is why the state should never be allowed to inflict deliberate pain, even if we believe that it may deprive people of life and liberty.

December 8, 2005 10:08 AM | category: Iraq and democratic theory | Comments


It's easy to find arguments from anti-torture liberals that quickly debunk the "ticking time bomb" argument. The primary argument is that in such a case, if torture were to occur but the information acquired lead to lives being saved, the President would almost certainly pardon any individuals responsible.

Whether one would need an effective apparatus to engage in such conduct is unclear.

December 8, 2005 7:59 PM | Comments (3) | posted by Nick Beaudrot

I'm not persuaded by these arguments against a "ticking time bomb." It's been well-documented that you can make anyone recant a belief through torture, and so the Spanish Inquisition form of torture is not very effective. But for specific intelligence? I think it's an empirical question and my guess is it that torture *is* effective especially when the torturer when the intel is hard to acquire but easy to verify.

I'm upset by SecState Rice's comments that "we're not perfect and we'll hold US torturers to account." To me, that's just a "don't ask, don't tell" reply. It leads directly to what Nick is talking about: CIA operatives imagining ticking bomb scenarios, and then cover ups when nothing materializes.

I think that we should focus on accountability: torture and assassinations are needed in the war on terror.

But these extreme measures require incredible oversight: the president can propose names and measures that must be approved by a small committee of congression leaders and Supreme Court justices. The proceedings of the meetings are secret; no action can be taken without unanimous consent; and the proceedings are released in 40 years to hold the committee accountable to history for its decisions.

December 9, 2005 12:06 PM | Comments (3) | posted by Michael Weiksner

From Tom Hilde, via email:

One central reason why the "ticking time bomb" scenario is specious is because one must torture in order to gain information about the hypothetical bomb in the first place. And then, one hopes, just maybe the information about where it is can be gained from further torture. But consider Abu Ghraib -- even an American general suggested that perhaps 80-90% of the inmates are not "terrorists." In order to discover that they are not terrorists and do not have knowledge of a "ticking time bomb," they must be tortured. Apparently, simply saying that they have no knowledge is inadequate in the manner in which this heinous war is conducted. In other words, most of the people tortured in the Iraq War (and I suspect in most cases of torture) are innocent, while the only justification one can muster is to torture in order to protect the innocent.

The actual hypothetical of this common way of justifying torture runs more like this (assuming information from torture has any reliability at all in the first place): "if there were a ticking time bomb -- of which we have no idea of its existence -- then we could only discover its existence by torturing everyone -- innocent or guilty (since this isn't established in advance) -- in order to find that person who has knowledge of its existence. Torture of innocents is justified in the name of potentially saving innocent lives from a ticking time bomb which may or may not exist." Charles Krauthammer and others who use the common "ticking time bomb" argument are also heinous.

The real strategy is to terrorize a population into political submission since there is no moral or crassly pragmatic justification for torture.

December 9, 2005 7:12 PM | Comments (3) | posted by Peter Levine

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